How the Passenger Became the Bartender’s Bar

Photo inside the Passenger by Scott Suchman

By 2 AM on a Saturday night, it’s starting to feel as if everyone in the Passenger knows one another. Or at least they know Tom Brown.

Surveying his dimly lit bar, Brown points out all the groups of people who work in other restaurants and bars—it must be half the crowd. Among those who pass through during the night: a bartender from McClellan’s Retreat, the chef at Bidwell in Union Market, and two members of the Cotton & Reed distillery team.

When Brown finds out it’s another bartender’s birthday, he grabs a bottle of 21-year-old Rosebank single-malt Scotch from the shelf and pours a round of shots.

Tom and his brother Derek Brown opened the original location of the Passenger in Shaw in 2009, before the neighborhood became a hip place to eat and hang out. When it closed at the end of 2014 to make way for a new development, Derek split off the Passenger’s fancy backroom cocktail den, Columbia Room, and moved it to a swanky space in Blagden Alley. Then in August, Tom revived the divier Passenger in a new two-story building at 1539 Seventh Street, Northwest. For many in the food-and-drink biz, it was like the return of Cheers. While nearly every neighborhood has its own post-shift watering hole, the Passenger has been unique in drawing off-duty bartenders, cooks, and servers from all over the city.

Why? Back in 2009, DC’s craft-cocktail scene was nascent, and there just weren’t a lot of bars owned by bartenders. “Having been in the restaurant business for so long, all my friends pretty much are in the restaurant business,” Tom says. “They were super-excited to see one of their own open their own place.”

The bar quickly evolved into a late-night destination to throw back shots and beers three or four nights a week. “I used to call it my living room,” says bar veteran Rachel Sergi, now at Quarter & Glory. Other regulars include chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley of Ripple and the new Smoked and Stacked, chefs Danny Lee of Mandu and Nick Stefanelli of Masseria, Espita Mezcaleria bartender Megan Barnes, and so many others that Tom has a hard time naming them all: “It’s like I’m trying to chase a herd of zebra and I can’t focus on one.”

By the time Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” was cranked up at last call, about three out of four patrons were typically restaurant and bar workers, recalls former Passenger bartender JP Fetherston. Any stragglers would be serenaded by Fetherston and server Adriana Salame Aspiazu to a duet of “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. The bar hosted occasional live-band karaoke nights as well—a tradition Brown plans on reviving at his new location.

The Passenger nailed a balance of highbrow and lowbrow. You could come in for a cheap beer and a shot—or get a perfect Negroni. That dichotomy applied just as much to the Brown brothers. “They could be the perfect gentlemen and the picture of hospitality, but then also they were party instigators,” Fetherston says.

When he was working at previous gigs, Tom Brown would often pick up a bottle of Old Overholt—one of his favorite value whiskeys—on his way to work, so when his industry friends came in, he could pour them a drink without affecting the owners’ liquor cost. When he opened his own place, he said “no more sneakiness” and offered industry friends a 20-percent discount.

He has tried to carry over the same generous spirit—and many of the same employees—to the new Passenger. But a few things have changed. The bar’s kimchee hot dog has been swapped for a kimchee grilled cheese. (Brown has conceded all hot-dog making to Ivy & Coney, an industry hangout next door.) At the old Passenger, the tap system poured Fernet—a bitter liqueur known as the “bartenders’ handshake” because of its popularity in the industry. Now the Passenger claims to be the only bar in the country that has both green and yellow Chartreuse on tap.

As for whether it will continue to be what it once was?

“It’s the people who show up at a bar who make it what it is,” Brown says. “And so far, I’ve seen them showing up.”

This article appears in the November 2016 issue of Washingtonian.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.